Wednesday 21 August 2019

Electric Deckers Spark Into Life

Of course, fully electric double decker buses are nothing new in this country, except all previous versions have required a pantograph and overhead wires. Now, in London they have gone wireless and pantless with their electric deckers, and they are out in service doing their bit to reduce emissions in the Capital. Yesterday I went to sample them, with a great degree of naivety in places too!

The first fully electric double deckers to enter service are on the 43, which runs from London Bridge Station to Friern Barnet in North London. After the total embarrassment of getting lost in the underground labyrinth that is now London Bridge trying to find the bus station (I blame misleading signage and I'm sticking to it) I found what I was looking for gleaming in the London sunshine.

BDE2628 pn the stand at London Bridge
This is the electric bus built by BYD in partnership with ADL, and using the E400 Citi body. Very nice they look too, I think I prefer them without the glass staircase. Inside they are light and airy, and the airchill works well. Seats are comfortable, and I boarded with an open mind and high hopes. I wasn't disappointed.

Upstairs in the BYD
We pulled away in silence. Well almost silence. The lack of engine noise makes the airchill seem even louder but that was a minor detail. I sat back and enjoyed the ride, and I mean really enjoyed the ride through Islington, Archway and Muswell Hill - first time for me there and it really is quite a hill! The BYD took everything in its stride, with startlingly rapid acceleration. They are seriously nice places to be. However, one thing niggled me. All seats have USB chargers except the most popular seats right at the front upstairs, and the seats immediately behind the stairs, and I admit I got a bit grumpy about that. However, thanks to the most chatty London bus driver I've met in decades all was revealed. As usual I wanted to get the driver's view, and at Friern Barnet terminus a rather decent Kosovan driver named Tim was more than happy to wax lyrical about the bus, how quiet and smooth it was, and such a pleasure to drive. He showed me that despite being out on the road since 5am - it was 1230 by this time - the bus had only used 27% of it's battery life. Mind you there are 3 tonnes of them, of which more later.

Friern Barnet terminus
Then I asked Tim about the lack of charging points in the most popular seats. I hope Roger French knows someone in TfL who can confirm this highly believable reason Tim gave me, that it's a decision made by TfL deliberately not to have charging points at those seats so they aren't hogged by passengers for hours taking videos while charging instead of getting the tourist buses. Not sure that applies to the 43, but as they are rolled out across London you can see the reasoning. If that is the true reason then it's well thought through. If not and they just couldn't be bothered then not so good. Anyway thank you, Tim, for the chat. I hope I have the pleasure of seeing you again when I return to see how the BYD's are faring. Tim told me they are the best bus they've ever had at Potters Bar depot. Praise indeed,

Sorry, Tim, you are wrong as they have already been beaten! This is where my naivety and lack of research comes to the fore.

I knew another route was getting electric deckers, the 134 between Warren St and North Finchley, a route that much of it shares with the 43. However all I had seen on the route were MCV Volvo Evosetis. Tim confirmed there were some electrics on the 134, and I assumed they were electric versions of the Evoseti. Even when I finally, after they had done their best in evading me for a couple of hours, boarded one I still had it in my head they were Evosetis, until I looked at the picture I had taken before boarding and realised what a prize chump I was. I should mention at this point I was already blown away by the ride and lack of body noise, believing it to be an Evoseti. But it isn't. Oh no!

Not an Evoseti!

Now, in my defence I have had an exhausting couple of weeks, had spent the previous day taking my 80yo mother shopping (90 mins in Aldi alone) and had had little sleep, so my brain wasn't at its most alert. However I really should have worked out what OME stood for! So I hang my head in shame for not realising it was an Optare Metrodecker Electric. But actually, thinking about it, the fact I thought it was an Evoseti meant I got on it with no preconceptions. Everyone knows I adore the Metrodecker diesel version, and I'm pretty sure I'd have got on expecting to be blown away. As it was I was blown away before I realised what it was. What it is, is truly phenomenal.

There is no body noise. None. The suspension gives a ride superior to that of the BYD/ADL. The airchill isn't as noisy, the acceleration could launch it into space. Windows that don't have to be unlocked to aid ventilation. True, it's not quite as light as the E400Citi, but the interior uplighting is far better, I imagine especially after nightfall. I shall return to check that one out.

Upstairs interior complete with LED up lighting
Is it as good as the BCI Enterprise? No, but they are for entirely different markets. The Enterprise is for interurban routes that require a heavyweight big powerful vehicle. They would be wasted on the likes of the 134. But the Metrodecker Electric, in my opinion, is the best local bus I've ever been on. Certainly my driver thought so. Didn't get as long with him as I did Tim, but he was just as gushing in his praise, apart from slightly heavy steering. What really spoke volumes though, and remember this is London where you're lucky to get a grunt out of a driver, when I was lining up the photo below, another driver came up to me, grinned, and said "they're bloody brilliant, mate". A driver approaching an enthusiast to praise the bus, in London? That's how good they are.

The Metrodecker at North Finchley terminus
Oh - notice anything about the destination display? London is famous for still insisting on roller blinds. However OME2654 has an LED display that is being trialled. Looks convincing enough to me - here is normally blinded OME2655 to compare.

Normal blinds
So, what are the conclusions. Well. the BYD/ADL is very impressive, and nice to travel on, at the moment. What does worry me with them, though, is body noise. The lack of engine noise means any rattle or creak is augmented, and there were plenty of them now, so it will be interesting to go back in 6 months to see, or rather hear what deterioration there has been, if any. I do not predict any such issues with the Optare, but they will get the same review in 6 months to check.

I mentioned the BYD has 3 tonnes of batteries. I don't know how much weight the Optare carries in batteries, but overall the Optare is over 2 tonnes lighter than the BYD. I assume that makes a big difference in power consumption, perhaps someone more technically minded than I can confirm that.

The weight of the Optare

And the heavier BYD/ADL

I'm in no doubt that electric buses are the future, and before long London will be flooded with them. Not East Anglia, obviously. If there are any buses still running in 50 years we might get some second hand electric ones if we're lucky, but in the real world where buses still have some importance we could be on the brink of a revolution, and the wireless, pantless trolleybuses will become standard in towns and cities across the land.

Rear view of the Optare

Thursday 8 August 2019

The Ticket Machine Says No

I was light heartedly accused in my last post of going soft! Andrew, I think you'll see I'm well and truly back to type.

First Eastern Counties have announced a ream of changes to their Ipswich network. It's not good news for anyone I can see, but good news for FEC who have been able to reduce their PVR.

So how have First reached the decisions to further streamline services and abandon more people to next to no service. Well, they claim on their website:

"These changes are based on feedback from passengers, local stakeholders and our local driving team as well as extensive analysis of passenger journeys and punctuality of our services." 

Ok, that's as you'd expect, basic jargon for "we say we've listened but everyone knows the truth" But it's the next paragraph that caught my eye, sent blood pressure stratospheric, and confirmed what I already knew.

"Our new ticket machines, introduced in May 2018, allow us to collect more detailed data on where and when people travel than has ever been possible in the past and we have carried out a detailed analysis of all of this information when designing these changes; many of which are intended to bring simpler, quicker and more direct journeys for the majority of passengers as well as ensuring the long-term sustainability of our network that is operated almost entirely without any sort of local authority subsidy."

I'm sorry? Name any other business that operates dependent on local authority subsidy! Are you after medals or something? Plus any subsidy that is given isn't to prop up your business but to give those poor sods who don't live on housing estates some sort of bus service. Except you're now going to abandon some housing estates too. But it's not just that. 

This is proof beyond all reasonable doubt that First are not interested in gaining new customers, in looking for new ground to break, to be innovative, enterprising, ambitious. No, this is proof that First are settling for what they've got, that they want to keep "the majority of passengers" happy, hoping they don't desert them too.

So let's go through these changes. 

Shuttle 60|60A

Gainsborough (60A) & Greenwich (60) - Nacton Road - Ipswich Town Centre

We’re making some minor changes to times of buses on both 60 and 60A services in the mid afternoon to better meet demand at this time of day.

Not too much here, except now the frequency reduces from every 10 mins to every 15 mins at 1500 instead of 1600. So "better meet demand" means 2 buses being cut.

Service 63|64|65 & Service 800 to Rendlesham

Aldeburgh - Leiston - Saxmundham - Wickham Market - Melton & Woodbridge - Ipswich Hospital - Ipswich Town Centre

We’ll be introducing a new timetable across all of these services, to better match them to the journeys that people are making.

Service 64 will continue to operate between Ipswich, Leiston and Aldeburgh up to every hour throughout the day from Monday to Saturday calling at Woodbridge, Melton, Wickham Market and Saxmundham. However, buses will take a new, faster route through Woodbridge using Warren Hill Road and Old Barrack Road and will no longer travel along Newnham Road, Peterhouse Crescent and Bullard’s Lane from where only very small numbers of passengers use the bus each day.

Service 64 buses will also no longer serve Martlesham Black Tiles, and will travel between Woodbridge and the Martlesham Heath roundabout via the A12. Service 65 will operate a limited number of journeys each day that provide a link to Martlesham Tesco.

Service 800 (Ipswich Park & Ride) will no longer be extended beyond the park and ride site to Woodbridge, Melton and Rendlesham. Rendlesham will be served by buses on Service 65 which will operate a number of journeys throughout the day at the times when the majority of people are travelling, and will call at all stops to Ipswich town centre.

We will be operating a revised service 63 beyond Wickham Market to Framlingham with a return ‘shoppers’ journey on weekdays, arriving in Ipswich at around 1100 and leaving at 1405.

This is the biggie, so let's go through this one carefully. Starting with the 64, my home route, if you can call 6 miles away home!

When I moved to Wickham Market, some 11 years ago now, there were 3 buses an hour between Ipswich and Melton. The majority of passengers boarded or alighted around the Peterhouse Crescent area. You never missed a stop on that section of route, and remember at that time the 165 was still operating fast services between Woodbridge and Ipswich. Gradually services have been eradicated, changed then changed again. From September the Peterhouse estate will have none. Nothing. Zilch. Cut off. How on Earth has it been allowed to come to this!

The link from Wickham Market to Martlesham Tesco has also finally vanished, and the result of this is the 64 has been sped up between Woodbridge and Ipswich via the A12. Or has it. Let's go compare! Currently the journey from Ipswich to Wickham Market takes 67 minutes, which is a lot for a journey that can take as little as 25 in the car. After September it will take 56, which I'm sure is roughly what it took 10 years ago! There is still a 2 hour pm gap on schooldays in the Aldeburgh services, just at the time people want to be returning, which when joint promotions with the trains are happening isn't great. Speaking of the trains, connections between bus and train at Saxmundham have declined again, and with the last bus leaving Ipswich at 1750 the Ipswich bound pm journeys are going to be woefully empty. If you can't get back by bus you aren't going to go there by bus. If I was a mum anywhere on the route wanting to take the kids to a matinee at the cinema followed by a McDonalds going both ways by bus I couldn't. If I was a student at college who had a lecture finishing at 6pm (it happens) I couldn't use the bus. If I was a worker not doing 9 - 5 I couldn't use the bus. Who are the buses aimed at? Pass holders? The same pass holders operators whinge about because they don't get enough back for them!

Rendlesham is suffering again too, and this is a place I truly can't understand. It should be heaving with bus passengers, it's prime bus territory - miles from anywhere. At the moment it's part of the extended Ipswich Park & Ride, but not from September. From what I can make out from the complicated timetable they are down to 3 buses a day into Ipswich, and just 2 from Ipswich. Roger French, Bus and Train User recently caught the 800 hoping to get to Rendlesham at 0930 to connect with Buckland's vintage 250 service to Aldeburgh. Delays forced him to bail at Melton and get the train to Saxmundham, but according to the timetable, which I hope is misprinted, the first bus to Rendlesham now arrives at 1440. 

But the crowning glory, the one that proves how spectacularly out of touch FEC are, is the 63, and the proud announcement of the shoppers return to Ipswich, giving customers 3 hours in the County Town. Firstly no one ever used the 63 to get from Framlingham to Ipswich. They used it to get to Woodbridge or Wickham Market, or occasionally Martlesham, which is why the soon to be scrapped 62 doesn't go further than Woodbridge. And why is that? Because the 63 takes 87 minutes to get from Framlingham to Tower Ramparts in Ipswich. Galloway's 118/119 which operates from Framlingham to Ipswich 10 times a day takes 43 minutes. But First assume everyone will be galloping onto the 63. Incredible. Framlingham doesn't need another bus to Ipswich. I know what it does need, but I doubt it will ever happen. 

Service 66 (including X66|H66|67)

Service 66 buses will operate a simplified route around Martlesham Heath, starting at Tesco and travelling via Gloster Road to serve Adastral Park and then returning to Martlesham Heath roundabout via the A12. Unfortunately, due to the extremely low numbers of people travelling, buses will no longer serve Eagle Way. Passengers from this area should use service 173, operated by Ipswich Buses on behalf of Suffolk County Council.

In Ipswich town centre, buses travelling between Tower Ramparts and Ipswich Rail Station will now travel via Civic Drive not Museum Street. Buses travelling towards Martlesham will no longer go into Old Cattle Market Bus Station, and will instead use the stop at Dogs Head Street/Revolution.

Service X66, fast between Ipswich and BT/Adastral Park will no longer operate although there will be four journeys on service 66 in the morning on weekdays that will operate direct to BT/Adastral Park (Gloster Road) before serving Martlesham Tesco. In addition, four service 800 journeys will operate between Ipswich town centre and BT/Adastral Park in the weekday mornings, following the normal direct route along Woodbridge Road and Kesgrave Main Road.

There will be a revised timetable on services 67 and H66.

This is another route so badly mismanaged over the years it beggars belief. Remember the Superoute66 buses? Nothing super about it now. It used to be a 24 hour service. Now the evening service isn't worth bothering with. Instead of wondering why patronage in the Eagle Way area is poor (blindingly obvious btw as served on a circular route so can get back from Tesco but can't get there and if coming back from Ipswich have to sit for an age at Tesco before getting home) and doing something about it the service is just being withdrawn. Alternating the circular route obviously never entered anyone's head because the ticket machines won't have come up with that.

Losing the X66 makes sense, as the 800's out of town in the mornings are always empty. However there are no return 800 journeys from Adastral park in the afternoons. "Catch the 800 to work but make your own way home" seems to be the message,

There is, however, one mitigating factor in the demise of the 66. Ipswich depot. The roof STILL hasn't been dealt with so STILL can accommodate nothing except low height deckers, meaning 16yo B7tl's are operating the route. By now it should be modern deckers with all mod cons like chargers, tables, aircon, posh seats etc. That roof is a Head Office issue, not local, but even so I don't think much effort has gone into promoting or growing the route in recent times.

Service 68

Grange Farm - Kesgrave - Ipswich Hospital - Ipswich Town Centre

Due to the extremely small numbers of people travelling since its’ introduction in July 2017, unfortunately this service will be withdrawn.

Not surprising, was poorly used even in the days of the 165. 

Service 88|89

Stowmarket Town Centre & Estates - Combs Ford - Needham Market - Claydon - Ipswich Town Centre

As a result of an extremely detailed analysis of the use of our buses between Ipswich and Stowmarket, we will be introducing a completely revised service and timetable to allow faster journeys between the main points on the route, better meeting the needs of the majority of passengers.

All buses will operate as service 88, following a standard route travelling from Ipswich along Norwich Road, Old Norwich Road and then calling at Claydon (The Greyhound) and travelling through Needham Market along Lower Street, Ipswich Road, High Street and Stowmarket Road. From there buses will call at Combs Ford, Cracknells Shop, then following Ipswich Road into Stowmarket.

This faster, more direct route will reduce journey times between Ipswich and Needham Market to just 31 minutes and Ipswich and Stowmarket to just 45 minutes.

Within Stowmarket buses will operate a simplified loop via Finborough Road, Onehouse Road and Chilton Way. Buses will then serve the new Northfield View development at the bottom of Chilton Way, via Bury Road, Brooke Road and Sorley Way, returning to Stowmarket town centre via Bury Road.

As a result of these changes, our buses will no longer serve Bramford Road, Bramford village, Claydon Estate, either estate in Needham Market, Melford Road/Lavenham Way in Combs Ford and St Edmunds Road/Mead Road/St Peters Road/Gainsborough Road/Thirlmere Drive in Stowmarket.

In all cases this is because of the extremely small numbers of people using our buses to and from these areas, the majority of which are within walking distance of an alternative bus stop, sometimes only reaching low single figures each week. Bramford village will be served by service 111 operated by Ipswich Buses on behalf of Suffolk County Council.

Stowmarket has really suffered in the latest round of cuts, and rather than see where they can pick up new custom, First have decided to join in and abandon several estates to reduce journey times and the number of buses required. Proudly proclaiming Ipswich to Stowmarket only taking 45 minutes now, achieved by missing out many of the customer bases, and conveniently forgetting the train does it in 11 minutes starting earlier and finishing far later. Last bus from Ipswich to Stowmarket is 1745, so same issues as the 64. Oh - and Ipswich Buses 111 serving Bramford? 3 return journeys a day!

So there we have it. On top of that Ipswich Reds are now a thing, the colour red being so synonymous with the town....oh hang on that's not right is it....anyway the new design is red and looks very Go Aheadish. That will get 'em flocking on, don't know why you didn't rry green and yellow! 

It is well known that First Group want to sell off their bus operations. It can't happen soon enough. Having seen FEC improve no end under David Squire and the jointly under Chris Speed and Hugo Forster it seems over the last couple of years that hard work has been undone. Services are deteriorating, buses looking tattier - whatever happened to that brilliant cleaning regime developed by Paulo Mota - complaints about poor driver attitude going up. I am convinced it has more to do with the blinkered regime in Aberdeen than decisions taken locally, not that anyone would admit it out of loyalty, understandably so, but until the bus operations are in the hands of people who actually give a stuff as usual the passenger will suffer more than most. And when estates start being axed you know there's real trouble, as well as when ticket machine data replaces proper research and development.

So my message to First Group is, in the words of The Moody Blues, if you're gonna go you'd better go now - go now, before you see me cry.